After an ugly Week 2 loss to the Raiders, it's back to the drawing board (and the athletic training room) for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Las Vegas played a great game and took advantage of opportunities given to them by Pittsburgh. The loss magnified some obvious problems with the Steelers, most notably their lack of depth as they deal with a host of injuries. Luckily for them, they saved a healthy chunk of cap space for in-season signings, and they should be looking to put some of that capital to use this week.
Of the injuries sustained by Steelers players during the game, the most serious was the fractured ankle suffered by nose tackle Tyson Alualu. That injury is expected to end his season. Couple that with a knee injury for Carlos Davis, an undisclosed injury for Isaiah Buggs, and the absence of Stephon Tuitt for at least one more week, and Pittsburgh's defensive front suddenly isn't looking so hot.
The severity of the injuries to Davis and Buggs is not yet known; getting those guys back for the Week 3 contest with the Bengals would be huge.
With their almost $11.5 million in cap space, the Steelers could look to add a veteran defensive tackle to bolster the depth. Old foe Geno Atkins comes to mind, as the eight-time Pro Bowler remains unsigned following a shoulder surgery toward the end of last season.
Kawann Short is another former Pro Bowl selection who remains a free agent following shoulder injuries that ended both his 2019 and 2020 campaigns. These guys are both nearing the end of their careers, and they certainly aren't the players they once were. But if the Steelers continue dealing with injuries to their defensive line, they won't have a choice.
Neither Atkins nor Short would cost much money, and they could both provide depth and contribute a limited number of snaps per game, helping especially to stop the run.
Turning to the secondary, a groin injury to Joe Haden turned the unit from elite in Week 1 to poor in Week 2. The secondary depth was an underrated concern throughout the entire offseason and, until recently, the team neglected the issue. Seventh-round draft choice Tre Norwood is simply not ready to handle all the responsibilities being thrown at him.
Norwood has played almost 80% of the team's defensive snaps, but he has not impressed. Elsewhere, after making some plays in Week 1, James Pierre struggled in Week 2. The whole secondary struggled, really. It was not a good week after a phenomenal performance against Josh Allen and company.
There are potential answers to the secondary issues already on the roster. Karl Joseph is sitting on the practice squad and should be promoted as soon as possible. While Joseph isn't quite as versatile as Norwood, he's a talented safety who can play the run well and slide down into the nickel cornerback position when needed.
At cornerback, Ahkello Witherspoon was recently acquired via trade with the Seattle Seahawks. He dressed on Sunday but only played four defensive snaps, as he is likely still learning Pittsburgh's defensive system. The hope of the team is that Joseph and Witherspoon can both provide much-needed depth in the secondary when they get acclimated to life in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers need Joseph and Witherspoon to perform well because there isn't much secondary depth remaining in the free agency market. Richard Sherman is the biggest name of the free agent cornerbacks, but he wouldn't fit Pittsburgh's scheme well. Other veterans like D.J. Hayden, Quinton Dunbar, and Darqueze Dennard don't bring much to the table at this point in their careers.
Pittsburgh could make a trade like they did to acquire Witherspoon, but a slew of trades over the past few months left them with limited draft capital. Unfortunately, there isn't much left for the Steelers to do in the secondary other than hoping Haden gets healthy and Witherspoon plays well.
Saving the worst for last, the Steelers' offensive line has far and away been the team's biggest issue through two weeks.
The rebuild from last year is not off to a hot start so far. No one on the line has performed well, but right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor has been the biggest weakness. Zach Banner will hopefully be able to return from Injured Reserve after Week 3, which would move Okorafor to the bench. But Banner is dealing with a potential setback from a torn ACL, so it's hard to predict how much more time he will miss. The Steelers don't have time to waste. They need to make their line better, and they need to do it now.
Of all the signings the Steelers could make, the biggest layup is at offensive tackle. Mitchell Schwartz remains a free agent and seems to be waiting for the right opportunity. Schwartz probably wouldn't be the messiah that Steelers fans are hoping for. He is 32 years old and coming off a back surgery in the offseason.
However, given the state of Okorafor and the Steelers' offensive line, it's hard to imagine that Schwartz couldn't make the unit at least a little better.
When Banner returns, he or Schwartz could either slide to left tackle or just move to the bench and be a key depth piece. The signing makes too much sense. Schwartz could start as soon as he learned the offense. If he played well, he could remain a starter for the rest of the season. If his back injury caught up to him for good, he could still be a quality depth piece and veteran presence that the line desperately needs.
They have the cap space to do it, and the Steelers should be aggressively looking into signing Mitchell Schwartz.
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